Ute Mountain Ute Tribe wins Energy grant for solar project in Utah

Every time the sun shines on the Ute Mountain Ute community of White Mesa next year, new solar panels on the town’s government buildings will generate electricity, eventually saving the tribe on energy costs.

The tribal government was the recent recipient of a $246,000 grant from the Department of Energy’s Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs that will be matched by the tribe to place rooftop solar on seven buildings in White Mesa as early as this fall.

“We're looking to save the tribe a lot on its White Mesa government electric bills with this installation,” said Scott Clow, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe’s environmental programs director. “We’re pretty excited we got [the grant].”

GRID Alternatives, a nonprofit committed “to making renewable energy technology and job training accessible to underserved communities,” will lead the installation and hire four Ute Mountain Ute citizens selected by the tribe to assist with the project.

“We essentially work with income-qualified or low-income communities to bring in these installations, sometimes introducing solar to these communities, but also incorporating hands-on training experience,” said Tim Willink, director of tribal programs for GRID Alternatives.

“We’re really excited about being able to partner with [the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe] to help fulfill and reach their goals of installing installing solar PV, job creation and working towards energy sovereignty,” he added.

Willink, who is from the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, said GRID Alternatives has already worked on several projects in San Juan County, and its tribal program has current projects with Blackfeet Community College, the Spokane Nation, Bishop Paiute and Oglala Lakota.

The nonprofit also worked with the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe to install a $2 million ground-mount solar project in Towaoc, Colo., that came online earlier this year.

That project, which was partially funded by a larger Department of Energy (DOE) grant, will sell power to the Ute Mountain Casino Hotel, and the revenue generated will save money on electric bills for tribal citizens.

The Towaoc project “came online in March, and we’ll be generating close to one megawatt of power for hopefully 20 or 30 years,” Clow said.

For now, the White Mesa project won’t include the same direct revenue-generating component, but that could be added at a future date.

“We’re definitely looking at the next steps in both communities, whether that is home-by-home solar installations or a larger project,” Clow said. “White Mesa is a pretty economically depressed place, so if we could create a revenue stream and a job there, that would go a long way in the community.”

The grant for the White Mesa installation was part of $5 million in funding for nine tribal energy infrastructure projects supplied by the DOE this year.

“The selected projects are consistent with the principles of tribal sovereignty and self-determination, with a fuel- and technology-neutral energy strategy that recognizes the breadth of energy resources on tribal lands, and each tribe’s right to use them as they see fit,” Office of Indian Energy director Kevin R. Frost said in a statement.

“Combined, these projects add up to over 3.7 megawatts of installed generation that will power over 180 tribal buildings, with combined lifetime savings of over $24 million — significant investments that will yield tangible results to improve the quality of life for these communities,” Frost said.

Clow noted that the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe has received substantial assistance from the DOE over the past 10 years and praised its Office of Indian Energy’s grant program. “From the northernmost tribes in Alaska to the southernmost tribes in Florida, [many] are benefiting from these DOE grants to help their energy needs and their economies,” he said.

The renewable energy grant isn’t the only recent proposal from the DOE that could have a big impact on the White Mesa area, however. In April, a nuclear fuels working group appointed by President Donald Trump recommended the federal government spend $150 million per year to create a stockpile of domestically mined uranium.

The proposal drew immediate praise from Energy Fuels, a uranium company that owns and operates the White Mesa Mill just north of White Mesa, and Energy Fuels CEO Mark Chalmers said his company was an “obvious candidate to supply U.S. uranium requirements.”

Clow said the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, which has long expressed concerns about potential air and water pollution from the mill, mentioned the mill’s impacts on the community in its grant application for the solar project.

“We talked about energy impacts to the White Mesa community with the uranium mill,” Clow said. “You know, living in the shadow of that mill for your whole life, breathing the air that blows down from there and worrying about groundwater contamination and the like — it affects people who live there. And so for that community to generate clean energy, I think that is a pretty significant thing and something to really be proud of.”

The project was scheduled to start later this year, but GRID Alternatives will be working with Ute Mountain Ute leaders to determine when it will be safe to carry out the project given coronavirus concerns.

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.